An Immigration Debate Primer

It’s hard to imagine a more depressing spectacle in contemporary American public life than the immigration reform “debate.” What a friend who’s bailing out of the mainstream media recently deplored over lunch as “bumper-sticker politics” dominates the so-called “public discourse” on the question, and, truth to tell, some prominent Catholics have added more heat than light to the mix. How might Catholic social doctrine and a Catholic optic on politics turn the mutual exchange of rhetorical barrages into a real national conversation? Herewith some preliminary thoughts:

• Catholic political theory places a high value on the rule of law, which it regards as morally superior to the alternative, which is the rule of willfulness imposed by brute force.

• The laws we make through our elected representatives are under the scrutiny of the natural moral law we can know by reason, which means that our political judgments should be rational, not glandular.

• The inalienable dignity and value of every human being from conception until natural death is the bedrock personalist principle from which Catholic thinking about public policy begins. The dignity does not confer an absolute right on anyone to live wherever he or she chooses. A proper Catholic understanding of limited and constitutional government grasps that the state—which in the American case means the national government—has a right to enforce its citizenship laws and a duty to conduct that enforcement in a just way.

• With the exception of our Native American brethren, every Catholic in the United States today is the descendant of immigrants (in my case, from Germany in the early- and mid-19th century). This demographic fact, which reflects the national tradition of hospitality to the stranger, should create a predisposition to be pro-immigrant within the Catholic community in America. That the vast majority of Catholics in the United States today are law-abiding citizens whose economic and social well-being is made possible by living within a law-governed political community should incline us to live that pro-immigrant predisposition through the mediation of the rule of law.

• It is absurd to suggest that the United States has become xenophobic, racist, or anti-immigrant. Last year, as my colleague Robert Royal pointed out in a recent article, the United States naturalized 1 million new citizens, most of them from Mexico, and over the past decade we have naturalized another 10 million people who have worked their way through the system legally. Millions more are in the legal immigration pipeline or are working in the United States with legal permits. If these are the marks of a racist or xenophobic nation, it’s a nation that displays its racism and xenophobia in very odd ways.

• The canons of justice dictate that people should not be rewarded for law-breaking, and that is what illegal immigrants do: they break the law. Realism dictates that we cannot send some 10 to 20 million illegal immigrants home. The present situation—border porousness, which is exploited by criminals as well as by those looking for work; a large population of illegals; millions of people seeking U.S. citizenship while playing by the rules—is intolerable. Any morally acceptable solution to immigration reform will address all three facets of the present mess.

• Responsible citizens who wish to be generous and uphold the rule of law and create a solution to the problem of illegals that doesn’t divide families or otherwise treat unjustly those who have, as Bob Royal put it, “taken advantage of a situation we Americans have allowed to exist for too long” should demand that politicians stop playing the demagogue on this issue. Responsible citizens, while understanding the angers of fellow-citizens along the southern border of the United States who are appalled at the situation they face on a daily basis and while demanding that the government fulfill its duty to protect the border, will also appeal to the common sense of their neighbors who imagine that deportation is a real-world solution.

Within these principles and facts, I suggest, lies an acceptable, if not perfect, solution to immigration reform.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • Joe DeVet

    How refreshingly principled and common-sensical this proposition is. Contrast it with the “selective social justice” provided by many of our Catholic leaders, eg the USCCB. By glossing over the fact that the illegal aliens in our midst break the seventh commandment about stealing, they risk cooperating in evil.

    Until they acknowledge the illegality of those who come uninvited, and until they stop blaming US citizens for the plight of the illegal aliens, in my opinion they have no credibility to direct my conscience on this matter.

    “Selective social justice”: private property is forcibly extracted from the unwilling, skimmed by the unworthy (gov’t bureaucrats), and given to the ungrateful. No one’s soul is saved, and true justice and charity are nowhere in sight.

  • Sane.

  • fatherjo

    It’s hard to believe Mr. Weigel, Venerable Pope John Paul II’s biographer, read anything by the pontiff concerning immigration.

  • goral

    Using logic Mr. Weigel is not the solution. This is a political issue. Arizona is getting slapped for their reasonable approach also.
    There are scores of men in jail just for taking their children out for ice cream.
    The children don’t have moms either because they got deported according to the media and some of our bishops.
    Why is there such blatant insanity out there? because there’s a political pay off!

  • john2

    No one goes to jail for taking their children out for ice cream.

    One goes to jail for violating the law.

    Do you see? No, I didn’t think you would. Those who will not see, shall not see.

  • fatherjo

    Here is a good video explaining the Bishops’ position on immigration:

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention An Immigration Debate Primer | Catholic Exchange --

  • goral

    Bishop John Wester adds nothing to the debate with his comments. It’s the typical rhetoric of those who ignore the facts.

    I have a right to go shopping to the grocery store to buy food. I don’t have a right to come into the store through the back door or to violate the lock on the front door and walk in.

    We have always welcomed legal immigrants and hopefully always will.
    The illegals need to be scared because they’re violating just laws.
    Our gov’t on the other hand needs to enforce the law and make the legal immigration process work in a timely manner.

  • GaryT

    The current situation is undoubtedly unjust.

    Illegal aliens are exploited. Since they are here illegally, they have no legal recourse to sub-par pay or dangerous working conditions and employers know it.

    Because they fall through the cracks in the law, it very well may be that illegal aliens are a net financial positive to the federal government since they may be paying taxes while at the same time have no legal claim to receive federal benefits, such as social security. At the same time, local government run services such as hospitals which provide services to all. As a result, the federal government, who is responsible for regulating immigration, sees illegal immigration as a net advantage financially while local governments see the reverse. Guess which is happy with the status quo?

    In this discussion we must not confuse the principles of justice and charity. Justice demands that all people obey just laws, including those of immigration. Government must enforce just laws for a civil society to exist.
    At the same time, individuals, and especially Christians, are called to live by charity. Churches should most certainly serve all people irrespective of their legal status. There is no duplicity in a church providing a charitable service to an illegal immigrant while a government refusing to provide a similar social service.

    I am for immigration. In particular, I would like to see more legal immigration and less illegal immigration. Clearly we have a job market for immigrants, so I would wish we could open the borders for more legal immigrants. This would resolve issues of families being broken up and would reduce the exploitation of immigrants. If immigrants were required to secure employment prior to immigrating, this would reduce burdens on local governments. Illegal immigrants who are already employed would naturally have a leg up and would ease amnesty issues.

    I suspect the real problem is that the federal government is content with the status quo. They just can’t publicly state so. Which is why they make a lame attempt to pretend they are fighting immigration while doing such a bad job at it that they make it reasonably easy for people to cross the border.